Some of the projects in the recent JISC Community Collections programme and Strand B of the eContent programme 2011 have looked at digital content as an opportunity for higher education institutions to engage more creatively and effectively with schools and employers. Interacting with digital content can provide imaginative ways of filling the gap in resources in particular subject areas and help foster collaboration and exchange between school teachers, pupils, universities staff, students, and employers.
But, in spite of the fact that many of us will follow the School>Higher education>Employment path, in more or less linear ways, how easy is it for these “sectors” to work collaboratively and ensure that students experience a smooth transition from one to the other?
OurWikiBooks, based at the University of Manchester, addressed the lack of resources and low uptake in Computer studies at A level and undergraduate level, which has serious repercussions on the job market. The project created a wiki-based resource where school teachers and students could collaborate with university students and staff in the creation and adaptation of relevant resources.
Queen Mary College, University of London, is tackling the literacy skills in STEM subjects needed by A level students through STEM WISHEES (STEM Writing in Schools, Higher Education and Employment Settings). The project is creating a web-based resource with texts from students and employers which exemplify the level of literacy skills needed within HE or in the work place.
Although not representative, some of the issues these projects have encountered are indicative of wider concerns or attitudes in the sectors under consideration.
At a more operational level, the question of timing is vital to ensure alignment of project activities to the school academic year. School teachers need a long lead time in order to plan activities within the year’s curriculum, especially if these are perceived as additional extras rather than core ones and things like school holidays, terms time, exams and planning cycles need to be taken into consideration.
Secondly, when setting out to work with schools, who is the right person to approach within a school? Headmaster? Advisors? Subject Coordinators? Teachers? Finding the right contact can be time consuming and STEM WISHEES found that despite having existing school links, it took them a number of meetings and phone calls before being able to identify the actual teachers they would be working with.
However, even once the right contact has been identified, for effective engagement to take place it is essential to get their buy-in. One needs to allow time for teachers to “get to grips” with the project, understand its purpose and above all understanding how it will benefit them, their work and their students. Project Manager Mark Van Harmelen from OurWikiBooks found that “… they [teachers] became much more engaged once we had visited their schools to speak to them face to face.”
Moving on to knowledge and skills, the interaction with digital content itself can be problematic. If digital content and the use of technology can be seen as an opportunity for more creative engagement with other sectors, at the same time it can also constitute a barrier.
Despite working with teachers and students of computer studies and the fact that many were familiar with Wikipedia, OurWikiBooks found that using a platform such as Mediawiki was still difficult for non-wiki specialists, particularly in its use of markup language. The project’s final report observes that “there is also a resource obstacle in that teachers do not have enough time to adopt novel and experimental classroom practices given the pressure on them to cover syllabus topics and ensure that their pupils do well in exams.” So the use of innovative tools and working patterns can be inhibited by the more focused requirements of school routine.
While contributing to the wiki web site, some students also inadvertently committed plagiarism and showed lack of awareness of IPR issues when it came to using other people’s content on the internet.
These issues of digital literacy and behaviour reflect wider concerns within our sector that are not solvable by any individual project, but which however constitute an extra burden on project resources. JISC, among others, is currently addressing digital literacy for both students and staff within higher and further education through its Digital Literacy programme in partnership with a variety of stakeholders within and outside the educational sector.
And finally, a question of culture: confidentiality vs openness. STEM WISHEES found that the kind of texts they would have liked to source from employers are too sensitive for employers to release openly on an educational web site (texts such as technical or research reports, minutes of meetings, agendas etc). While the ethos towards openness is fast gaining ground within the educational and public sectors, in the private sector the attitude to “open” can be undermined by more pragmatic concerns, which will, in turn, affect what is “openly” available to students and teachers.
In summary, yes, it is possible to work together but a number of issues have to be tackled:
• practicalities at operational level such as aligning the time of a project with the school year, allowing time to identify the right contacts and ensuring their buy-in into the project
• knowledge and skills: taking into account of the extra demands placed on projects focusing on digital content by issues of digital literacy
• cultural attitudes: confidentiality vs openness, reconciling the demands of the private sector with the public sector ethos, balancing aspirations with pragmatism.